HIV/AIDS: Punitive laws are costing lives

Incredible though it may seem, after over thirty years fighting this pandemic, repressive and sexist laws in up to 127 countries hinder progress against HIV/AIDS. Why does it take the world community so long to act and why haven't we learnt to pool resources effectively? Or is there a hidden agenda?

The new UN-sponsored report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (*) was drawn up by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. The team is composed of former heads of state and leading legal, human rights and HIV experts. The work was supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The finds are as shocking as they are depressing: after all these years since AIDS first appeared as a pandemic in the early 1980s (although researchers state 1884, 1924, 1931 and 1959 as the dates when the disease first manifested itself in humans) the report finds that punitive laws and human rights abuses carried out in up to 127 countries are costing lives, wasting resources and hampering the response.

Conversely, in those countries where human rights are strongest, progress against HIV/AIDS has been the most effective.

 Repression is not the answer

Discriminatory laws put in danger precisely those most at risk of infection with HIV/AIDS, states the report, citing the following cases: laws which condone customs that do not protect women and girls from gender violence put them at greater risk; obscurity or bad definition of intellectual property rights can hinder access to life-saving treatment; the criminalisation of homosexual relations, sex workers and transgender people together with repressive measures against intravenous drug users drive people underground and away from an approach of openness which could see them enter therapy programmes.

The report concluded that laws criminalizing the exposure to or infection with HIV/AIDS (over 60 countries) discourages people from having an HIV test; the criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity (78 countries), the criminalisation of sex work (over 100 countries) would deter people from being open about their health situation. In the case of the sex workers, it leaves them victims to violence and rape, apart from excluding them from healthcare services.

In other cases, laws which disempower women and girls, denying them the right to determine whether or not they are subjected to female genital mutilation and denying them any property rights take away their right to negotiate safe sex. In 127 countries there is no legislation against marital rape.

Finally, the report exposes laws and government policy which hinder access to sexual education or harm-reduction initiatives.

The answer

The globalization of human rights, which includes gender equality, could do much to ensure that all women and girls have access to treatment and by empowering women, giving them a voice in society, the response would be more balanced and therefore more effective. The report also underlines the more selfish nature of humankind, concluding that "Excessive intellectual property protections ... hinder the production of low-cost medicines, especially second-generation treatments, impede access to treatment and prevention".

Thirty years later, billions of dollars later, we have the means to reduce AIDS to a chronic, rather than a critical, condition. Thirty years later, we continue to waste money and resources, we continue not to reach populations with education programmes and we continue to use the "hot air" approach so endemic in UN policy-making:

"Now, more than ever, we have a chance to free future generations from the threat of HIV. We cannot allow injustice and intolerance to undercut this progress, especially in these tough economic times." (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil).

All words, no action. How disgusting.




Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey




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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey